Stephen Smith's Death: What We Know And How The Murdaughs Are Connected

Content warning: The following article contains references to an alleged murder, including a possible anti-gay hate crime.

Stephen Smith was a young man with a bright future ahead of him, having just finished his first year of nursing school with hopes of one day becoming a doctor. Tragically, on July 8, 2015, the 19-year-old was found dead in the middle of the road in Hampton County, South Carolina, under mysterious circumstances. Authorities first thought he may have been shot, but his death was quickly ruled a hit-and-run, although they never found the driver. Many law enforcement officers on-site disagreed with the initial ruling of a hit-and-run, based on evidence at the scene. This led to Smith's case being reopened in 2021 to thoroughly investigate his actual cause of death. While no suspect was officially named, a Smith family friend claimed the notorious Murdaugh family was mentioned dozens of times in investigative documents, per local news outlet WSCS. As the case developed, rumors pointed to the eldest Murdaugh son, Buster, being involved in Smith's death, as they were classmates in high school and Smith's body was discovered miles from the Murdaugh estate.

It wasn't until 2023 that Smith's death became a media sensation, after people grew fascinated by the numerous documentaries detailing the heinous crimes of the corrupt and deadly South Carolina family, the Murdaughs. Buster Murdaugh now finds himself in the middle of the investigation, with his legal team saying he was not involved in the tragic death of his peer, per Fox News.

Buster Murdaugh and Stephen Smith were classmates

Buster Murdaugh, the son of disgraced and once prominent attorney Alex Murdaugh, was an athlete at Wade Hampton High, playing football and baseball, and was known for his outgoing personality. Stephen Smith was described by his friends (in the Netflix documentary "Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal) as a friendly, bright individual. Standing for Stephen founder Susanne Andrews mentioned a connection between the classmates on the "Lauren Interviews Podcast." "Buster and Stephen were in the same grade at the same school. Stephen was the athletic director for the baseball team for Wade Hampton High School. I believe Buster played baseball." She also believed Stephen had tutored Buster. 

Being openly gay in a conservative town like Hampton County, South Carolina couldn't have been easy, and this is one aspect to note in the case of Smith's death. Some theorized that Smith and Murdaugh were secretly in a relationship. As Seventeen notes, this rumored romance would reportedly not have been something the Murdaugh family wanted out in the open. When speaking with investigators, Smith's twin sister recalled that he had kept to himself for a couple weeks leading up to his death, even "playing hooky" instead of going to class, per local news outlet WIS. She had heard from a friend that for a day or two, her brother was being followed by a green Jeep, as well. Stephen Smith's boyfriend also reportedly claimed he was threatened over the phone after Smith's death.

Stephen Smith's body was found 15 miles from the Murdaugh home

On that tragic night of July 8, 2015, Stephen's Smith's body was discovered by a passing driver in the middle of Sandy Run Road, and the driver immediately phoned local authorities. The proximity of Smith's body to the Murdaugh family estate — 15 miles away — has raised questions about the alleged involvement of Buster Murdaugh in his death. While there is still no direct evidence linking the Murdaugh family or Buster to the crime, the family's wealth and influence in the small town may have led many to speculate that they were involved in a cover-up or obstruction of justice, particularly since the family has been connected — directly or indirectly — to several deaths in a few short years.

"The South Carolina Highway Patrol case notes from 2015 include Buster Murdaugh's name nine times," reads a statement in the Hilton Head South Carolina newspaper The Island Packet. Per NPR, Stephen's mother, Sandy Smith, claimed that her son had to walk once his car ran out of gas, possibly opening him up to an attack. Although there is no concrete proof of Murdaugh's involvement, he comes from a family of lawyers and politicians with endless connections. This raises the question — did their connections and power have anything to do with Smith's case not being looked into further for the first five years after his passing? 

Stephen Smith's mother wrote a letter to the FBI in 2016

In 2016, Stephen Smith's grieving mother, Sandy, sent a letter to the FBI pleading for their assistance in solving the murder of her son, Stephen. In the four-page letter obtained by FITSNews, Smith makes some shocking claims about what could have happened to her son. Smith makes it clear that she believes the Murdaugh family may have been involved in her son's death — and she has leads to explain her position. 

A particularly damning section of the letter read: "The first call my family received after the murder was from authorities notifying us of Stephen's death. The second came very quickly the same morning from solicitor Randolph Murdaugh. In fact, he called my ex-husband's cell phone as we waited in the police station for a positive identification. He said he heard of the case and was interested in working pro bono as a liaison between the family and investigators. Stephen's father accepted the offer, although we were unsure why Mr. Murdaugh wanted to help us. We also weren't sure how he found out so quickly — even before it was confirmed to be our son." 

Why would Alex Murdaugh's brother Randy offer to take the case pro-bono, in addition to knowing about Stephen's death before it went public? Sandy Smith goes on to say that her other children were given information about Stephen's death. Stephen's brother was allegedly approached by a stranger who witnessed Stephen's murder and claimed Buster Murdaugh was responsible. Stephen's sister was allegedly told that Randolph Murdaugh's nephews (which would include Buster) were responsible.

There were conflicting reports about Stephen Smith's cause of death from the beginning

The death of Stephen Smith sparked controversy and raised concerns about the actions of the law enforcement officers initially involved — many wondered if it was possible that the Murdaughs influenced police on the very night of Smith's death. There were conflicting reports about what happened to Smith (a gunshot wound/blunt force trauma to the head was even discussed), eventually landing on the ruling that it was a hit-and-run. This left the Smith family frustrated and confused. After all, his shoes were on his feet, his cell phone was intact, and there was no trace of automotive debris anywhere to be found. After reviewing the South Carolina Highway Patrol document released by FitsNews, one officer stated, "Anyone who reads that file knows it was not a hit-and-run." 

The pathologist who performed the autopsy on Smith's body, Erin Presnell, declared the final cause of death a hit-and-run, despite being challenged by two members of the SCHP team — investigator Todd Proctor and Sgt. Thomas Moore. The two men did not agree with Presnell's ruling, and she was later fired, per the NY Post. 

Proctor remembered his strained conversation with Presnell, saying, "As I was leaving, she stated that the report was preliminary and it was my job to figure out what it was struck him not hers." It's a good thing the SCHP pressed further as Smith's death was officially ruled a homicide in March 2023.

The Smiths obtained the same attorney as the family of the Murdaughs' dead housekeeper

Gloria Satterfield was the beloved housekeeper who worked for the Murdaugh family for over 20 years and was rumored to have known "too much" about the troubled family. She died in 2018 from injuries sustained while falling at their home, which the late Maggie Murdaugh blamed on the family dogs ambushing Satterfield, causing her to lose balance on concrete steps. Satterfield's son's advocated for justice, alleging that the Murdaughs were responsible for their mother's death. Satterfield's family members were reportedly promised insurance money from Alex Murdaugh but sadly never received it; now the state claims Murdaugh stole more than $4 million in insurance money. The sons of Gloria Satterfield, Michael and Tony, testified against Alex Murdaugh when he was on trial for the murder of his wife and son Paul.

Eric Bland, a leading South Carolina-based attorney, has been representing the Satterfield family in their pursuit of justice. In a statement, Bland's firm noted that "It is not known if any member of the Murdaugh family called 911 after the incident –- nor is it clear how Satterfield was transported to the hospital, where she stayed for several weeks." In March 2023, the family of Stephen Smith also decided to hire the Bland Richter firm after his death was officially ruled a homicide. In a press release, Bland stated, "We are honored to represent Sandy Smith in this matter. It is Sandy and Stephen's turn for justice, and to finally get answers. It's our intention to get them."

Stephen Smith's family believes his death was a hate crime

The Smith family and attorney Eric Bland have been very vocal about their belief that Stephen Smith's death was an anti-gay hate crime, as he was an openly gay teenager in a small town. Bland told People, "When you start going down the possibility that it was a hate crime and they took a rape kit, this is an openly gay 19-year-old kid. And this isn't in New York City or California or Washington D.C., Philadelphia. It's in the Lowcountry, South Carolina, where being openly gay in 2015 probably is not the most popular thing to be." Bland also doesn't believe the assumption that Smith's car ran out of gas, as he left his wallet in his car, and reportedly began walking along the rural highway at four in the morning. 

In Sandy Smith's letter to the FBI, she alleged that she feels her son was targeted because "Stephen had on more than one occasion mentioned to friends and his twin sister that he was involved romantically with someone from a prominent family in the county who was hiding his sexuality. He said it would shock people to know this person was gay. We suspect this could be the young man Stephen was referring to, though he never named him." She added that it was unlikely that her son would have walked down a dark road or opened his car door for help from a stranger. 

If you or a loved one has experienced a hate crime, contact the VictimConnect Hotline by phone at 1-855-4-VICTIM or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Buster Murdaugh releases an official statement

With Alex Murdaugh sentenced to life in prison for the murders of his wife Maggie and youngest son Paul, many would argue that Buster Murdaugh should be left alone to grieve the loss of his entire family. The rumors surrounding the death of Stephen Smith suggest that Buster Murdaugh was involved, although there is no evidence that has surfaced linking him to Smith's death, and as of this writing, authorities are not connecting anyone in the Murdaugh family to Smith's death. On March 20, 2023, Buster Murdaugh released an official statement via his lawyer, Jim Griffin on Twitter. 

The statement reads: "I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith's tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother ... I haven't spoken up until now because I want to live in private while I cope with their deaths and my father's incarceration ... These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false." 

Buster adds that he has allegedly been harassed by people who believe that he's culpable in Smith's death and that the media has published rumors about him related to the case.

Stephen Smith's body was finally exhumed

In March of 2023, a new GoFundMe was created by Sandy Smith to raise funds for her late son's body to be exhumed and have an independent autopsy performed. The GoFundMe raised over $100,000. On April 2, 2023, family attorney Eric Bland took to Twitter to announce that Smith's body had been exhumed, re-examined, and then carefully transported back to his final resting place. "A tremendous amount of planning went into this past weekend by a lot of people including the funeral home, coroner, DHEC, the excavators, doctors Dupre, Schultz and Haney and at least 12 SLED Officers. The biggest thanks goes to SLED Chief Mark Keel because without him this could not have gone on without a hitch," wrote Bland. He went on to add that it was a very emotional weekend for Stephen's mother Sandy Smith, and she was comforted by podcast host Mandy Matney.

Additionally, Bland announced that they would be using the remaining money from the GoFundMe as a reward for anyone who brings forward "a tip that leads to the arrest of persons(s) who are responsible for the death of Stephen Smith." Bland urges anyone with information to email

New developments were revealed in April 2023

The public remains invested, waiting for new developments in the Stephen Smith case. In April 2023, South Carolina police zeroed in on two potential persons of interests. It was revealed that five months after Smith's death, a man named Darrell Williams claimed he was told by his stepson Patrick Wilson that Wilson's friend Shawn Connelly, was responsible for killing Smith in a hit-and-run. Williams called SLED to inform them of this news, but later said he didn't know of his stepson's whereabouts as he had moved out and didn't disclose where he was going. Williams also stated that it was Randy Murdaugh, brother of Alex, who told him to call the police in the first place. Additionally, during the time that Williams called the police to disclose what his stepson had told him, Wilson was facing attempted murder charges that were dropped by a judge ... who supposedly had ties to the Murdaugh family. Shawn Connelly also had two pending vehicle accident lawsuits that were dropped by judges with Murdaugh ties.

According to Greenville Online, it was revealed that a rape kit was performed but never processed; now that kit appears to be "misplaced." But major progress was made as SLED finally gained access to Smith's cell phone and tablet to review with "fresh eyes" and see who Smith was interacting with before his death. Attorney Eric Bland believes the case will be solved with this evidence.